Should patriotism be foolhardy? Will possession of a dicey battlefield settle neighborly squabbles once and for all?
On February 6, The Times of India pitched its readers into 74kms of treacherous ice with an unspoken query now left quivering in some vague corner of an otherwise patriotic Indian mind: Is Siachen worth dying for?
The debate was undoubtedly triggered off by the latest statistics released by Indian defence circles delineating the details of ten (now nine) army lives presumed dead under a deadly avalanche on February 3 and for whose retrieval, efforts are still on.
One soldier was found miraculously alive but deeply critical with a still-ticking pulse when he was pulled out from under 25 feet of snow.
It was in 1984 that India had then bested Pakistan by a few hours to set base at Siachen under Operation Meghdoot and laid claim to the ownership rights of the world’s highest battlefield which also included Sonam –the world’s highest helipad at a height of 21000 feet.
Located in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayas, just north-east of the point where the Line of Control between India and Pakistan ends, Siachen lies to the immediate south of a region often referred to as the “Third Pole’.
That Siachen bestows India a huge tactical advantage over Pakistan in case of a war-scenario is an indisputable fact.
But when juxtaposed with the ground reality that India has had to sacrifice over 800 lives since 1984 –lives which were lost to harsh inclement weather rather than actual combat in preserving her territorial rights over the same- one is forced to do a rethink on what exactly constitutes nationalism and perceived sovereignty over a patch of land.
Is it now a case of winning the battle but losing the war?
We may have grabbed Siachen from our north-west neighbour but are we losing the war against Mother Nature’s fury?
Avalanches and crevasses stalk the glacier as silent killers with temperatures hovering around minus 60 degree Celsius, a stony dead freezing wasteland as Captain Raghu Raman prefers to put it.
With almost ten thousand troops reportedly stationed there, the extreme climactic conditions of this huge chunk of ice- prey to stormy blizzards and spine-chilling cold- make the Siachen posting an unenviable tenure in any soldier’s life.
Yet the Indian Army continues to defend this 74 km-stretch even to the point of giving up their limbs if not their lives with almost all of them left health-scarred for the rest of their lives.
The emotional and psychological scars get swept under the carpet as there are no beholders to empathize with these hidden traumas engraved in the depths of a battle-hardy soul.
That they were able to defend this ice desert for 32 years and still continue to do so is a befitting reply to all those people out there who believe life in the armed forces is all about “aish aur araam” and that they are a pampered lot out to eat into the commoners’ tax returns.
But leaving the intense patriotism unleashed behind us, we still have takers for why on earth do we need to be at Siachen in the first place?
According to geographical evidence published in the journal Current Science in 2009 by Dr. Rajeev Upadhay of Nainital’s Kumaon University, the original length of Siachen was 150kms which has now come down to less than half i.e. the present 74kms.
Going by this data, it would be a mere matter of time when we may not have a glacier to defend due to the sickening effects of climate change and global warming.
At a time when 2016 could be a year of economic recession for India, is spending money to the tune of Rs.7 crores of the taxpayer’s money per day for the upkeep of a territory which just keeps gnawing away at human lives and maintenance resources justified?
It is not that efforts have not been made earlier to demilitarize the Siachen zone, but all of them have failed miserably till date. This despite the fact that Pakistan too has borne the brunt of the extremely unreliable weather conditions in the said sector.
So whether it is due to bruised egos or even a case of upping the ante when a war breaks out or simply a sore lack of political will in order to pander to a misplaced sense of nationalism, it now seems almost a case of Hobson’s choice after all.
That we made it into one makes it more pathetic, when one confronts the misery in the eyes of the families of all those who lost their lives at the altar of a cold-hearted monster which Siachen has become for them at least.